Democrats are pushing back against talk of dropping the automatic spending cuts should the deficit-reduction supercommittee fail to meet its goals, in a major game of chicken on Capitol Hill.
The supercommittee has until next Wednesday to vote on a plan to lower the federal budget deficit by $1.5 trillion. Failure would trigger $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spending cuts, a process called “sequestration” that would affect a wide range of domestic programs — about half at the Defense Department.
Many conservatives and Pentagon officials have railed against the automatic cuts, saying they would weaken the military. Some Republicans have expressed a desire to change the rules to stop sequestration from kicking in on January 2013, should the supercommittee fail.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said undoing the automatic cuts trigger — a compromise born out of this summer’s hard-fought battle to raise the debt-ceiling — would be a mistake.
“Those who talk about retracting the sequester are wrong, are not living up to the agreement we reached to cut our nation’s deficit last July,” said Mr. Reid on Tuesday. “I would not vote to undo the sequester.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat and supercommittee member, said getting around the automatic cuts would send the message that Congress isn’t serious about deficit reduction.
“If you get rid of the sequester, the deficit of the United States will automatically jump by $1.2 trillion,” he said Monday on PBS’ “News Hour” program. “Undoing it and talk of undoing it simply means you’re trying to escape the choices.”
Yet, because the automatic cuts wouldn’t take effect until January 2013, Congress would have plenty of time to alter — or undo — sequestration.
“We’ve got 13 months to find a smarter way to do it, and I think the cuts that are aimed at defense frankly go too far,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican and a co-chairman of the debt panel, said Tuesday on CNBC.
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican and supercommittee member, said he expects Congress will tinker with the sequestration rules should the deficit panel fail.
“In a very, very unfortunate event that we don’t [reach a deal], I think it’s very likely that Congress would reconsider the configuration of that sequestration,” the Pennsylvania Republican said this week on “Fox News Sunday,” though he added that he would oppose such a move. “I think that would be a lively debate.”
Still, Democrats added they don’t view the automatic cuts as a desirable alternative to the supercommittee hammering out a deal worth $1.5 trillion or larger.
“None of us want to risk the immediate and long-term effects of sequestration that it will bring if the committee fails in its task,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said Wednesday.
Meanwhile Wednesday, Mr. Hensarling said he won’t budge on a GOP offer of $250 billion in new tax revenue unless Democrats make a meaningful counter-proposal.
“I’m not rejecting any offer out of hand, quite the opposite, I’m still waiting for a new offer to be put on the table,” Mr. Hensarling told a small gathering of reporters outside his office. “With respect to the offer I’ve already put on the table, Republicans have put on the table, I’m not going to negotiate against myself.”
The Texan appeared to be stepping back from comments he made Tuesday evening on CNBC in which he said Republicans “have gone as far as we feel we can go.”